Six ways to fix the IT skills shortage

Tech is still missing out on some of the brightest and best: here are a few ideas on what needs to change.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
empty office

Many businesses can't fill tech roles due to lack of available talent.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Tech is still missing out on some of the brightest and best: here are a few ideas on what needs to change.

The IT skills gap is causing business leaders more problems than ever before. Research from non-profit association CompTIA suggests at least eight in 10 US businesses are being negatively impacted by the lack of technology talent.

It is a similar situation across the Atlantic, where the EU Commission reports the continent will have a shortfall of 900,000 much-needed IT professionals by 2020.

So how can organisations address this skills gap and develop the next generation of IT leaders? Six experts provide their best practice tips.

1. Think differently around your best business practices

Andrew Agerbak, director at The Boston Consulting Group, says attracting and retaining great people has become a competitive differentiator in the digital age.

His says conversations with CIOs lead him to conclude that access to the best people is often the biggest obstacle to a successful digital transformation. Agerbak suggests innovative approaches to development will be rewarded.

"You must engage people and make them proud to work for your business. Be clear about where you want your best people to work; you need to work out where your differentiation occurs. Remember that great people attract great people," he says.

"There's a buzz around talented staff and they inspire others to work differently. Don't be scared to hire new, talented people and to try new things. A hackathon, for example, might seem unusual for a bank but it encourages people from all departments to see how others around the organisation work."

2. Encourage people to switch departments

Interim CIO Christian McMahon, who is managing director at transformation specialist three25, says skills development is a key issue. McMahon has held CIO roles at analyst Ovum and liquidity specialist GoIndustry. One of his tactics has been to give people the opportunity to work outside their comfort zones.

"I have always taken in staff from across the business and allowed others to move the other way, too," he says. "It's something I try to encourage in all of the IT organisations I lead. More often than not, the people who switch departments have delivered beyond expectation in the roles they take up."

Such is the strength of the approach that McMahon says many of the people who switch to the IT department have often stayed and moved into senior positions: "I don't think they would have achieved the same results or longevity in their careers had they been transplanted straight into a single area of the business."

3. Source new types of agile thinking

Businesses must make an investment in skills a number one priority, says Adam Thilthorpe, director of policy, professionalism, and public affairs at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. "As a CIO, you have to understand people are your best assets in the digital age -- they are fundamental to your success," he says.

The challenge, says Thilthorpe, is that many of the traditional operational abilities -- like testing and supporting -- are unlikely to help a business create a competitive differentiation. Being able to run IT is no longer good enough and blue chip businesses need entrepreneurial technologists.

"Executives want agility in their organisations -- and they must source this talent," says Thilthorpe. "What makes you successful today won't work tomorrow. Businesses need new, innovative, and creative thinking to cope with the fast pace of change in the digital age."

4. Build a proper apprenticeship programme

Former-CIO-turned-digital-advisor Mark Ridley often attends graduate recruitment fairs. He says younger people almost always give the same answer when asked what they would like to do for a job: to work in business.

"That's not really an answer -- it's not a specific job," says Ridley. "Too many people aren't given enough guidance about the types of roles in the labour market and the kinds of things they would like to do."

Ridley was formerly director of technology at reed.co.uk. The recruitment firm creates graduate apprenticeships that allow people to experience different roles across the business. At the end of the programme, new workplace entrants are asked to say which positions they enjoy the most. The aim is to create an agile approach to work, where people can fill in as demands change.

"Traditional education doesn't necessarily provide the right answers anymore," he says. "When there's a stronger apprenticeship culture, people work through various roles from a younger age. I think we need to do a much better job of helping people think about their career options at a much earlier age."

5. Make sure younger workers focus on newer ideas

Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift, has worked across a broad gamut of industries and roles, including interim executive positions. He agrees that modern work is becoming more flexible by nature and says the good news is great IT people will always be in demand, despite the automation of work.

"We're all part of an ideas economy now," says Dowden. "If you can come up with new ideas, you'll be employed. Successful companies today understand that technology and information management are key components of their business and the services it provides."

He says CIOs should ensure their IT professionals keep a watchful eye on trends in order to keep their skills fresh. "What we're looking at is an evolution," he says. "Every time something disappears, a new skills arrives."

6. Give students the opportunity to experiment

Matt Britland, director of ICT at Lady Eleanor Holles School, runs technology for an educational establishment. Yet his role means he also has the opportunity to experience some of the next generation of IT professionals at first hand -- and he believes the key to success is modelling.

"It's all about giving people an opportunity," he says. "Curriculum pressures mean time is precious in all schools. It's important to expose students to as many different elements of computing as possible, such as individual programming languages and the chance to use technology for creative purposes."

Britland says his school, for example, gives students the opportunity to research robotics and to undertake programming in the classroom. "We try and expose our pupils to ideas," he says. "Schools are really well placed to show students the potential power of technology and extracurricular activities, like coding clubs, can also boost involvement."

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